Warlord Builds Afghan Empire with U.S. Dollars

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 2 months ago

From The New York Times:

TIRIN KOT, Afghanistan — The most powerful man in this arid stretch of southern Afghanistan is not the provincial governor, nor the police chief, nor even the commander of the Afghan Army.

It is Matiullah Khan, the head of a private army that earns millions of dollars guarding NATO supply convoys and fights Taliban insurgents alongside American Special Forces.

In little more than two years, Mr. Matiullah, an illiterate former highway patrol commander, has grown stronger than the government of Oruzgan Province, not only supplanting its role in providing security but usurping its other functions, his rivals say, like appointing public employees and doling out government largess. His fighters run missions with American Special Forces officers, and when Afghan officials have confronted him, he has either rebuffed them or had them removed.

“Oruzgan used to be the worst place in Afghanistan, and now it’s the safest,” Mr. Matiullah said in an interview in his compound here, where supplicants gather each day to pay homage and seek money and help. “What should we do? The officials are cowards and thieves.”

Mr. Matiullah is one of several semiofficial warlords who have emerged across Afghanistan in recent months, as American and NATO officers try to bolster — and sometimes even supplant — ineffective regular Afghan forces in their battle against the Taliban insurgency.

In some cases, these strongmen have restored order, though at the price of undermining the very institutions Americans are seeking to build: government structures like police forces and provincial administrations that one day are supposed to be strong enough to allow the Americans and other troops to leave.

In other places around the country, Afghan gunmen have come to the fore as the heads of private security companies or as militia commanders, independent of any government control. In these cases, the warlords not only have risen from anarchy but have helped to spread it.

For the Americans, who are racing to secure the country against a deadline set by President Obama, the emergence of such strongmen is seen as a lesser evil, despite how compromised many of them are. In Mr. Matiullah’s case, American commanders appear to have set aside reports that he connives with both drug smugglers and Taliban insurgents.

“The institutions of the government, in security and military terms, are not yet strong enough to be able to provide security,” said Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “But the situation is unsustainable and clearly needs to be resolved.”

Many Afghans say the Americans and their NATO partners are making a grave mistake by tolerating or encouraging warlords like Mr. Matiullah. These Afghans fear the Americans will leave behind an Afghan government too weak to do its work, and strongmen without any popular support.

“Matiullah is an illiterate guy using the government for his own interest,” said Mohammed Essa, a tribal leader in Tirin Kot, the Oruzgan provincial capital. “Once the Americans leave, he won’t last. And then what will we have?”

Mr. Matiullah does not look like one of the aging, pot-bellied warlords from Afghanistan’s bygone wars. Long and thin, he wears black silk turbans and extends a pinky when he gestures to make a point. Mr. Matiullah’s army is an unusual hybrid, too: a booming private business and a government-subsidized militia.

His main effort — and his biggest money maker — is securing the chaotic highway linking Kandahar to Tirin Kot for NATO convoys. One day each week, Mr. Matiullah declares the 100-mile highway open and deploys his gunmen up and down it. The highway cuts through an area thick with Taliban insurgents.

Mr. Matiullah keeps the highway safe, and he is paid well to do it. His company charges each NATO cargo truck $1,200 for safe passage, or $800 for smaller ones, his aides say. His income, according to one of his aides, is $2.5 million a month, an astronomical sum in a country as impoverished as this one.

“It’s suicide to come up this road without Matiullah’s men,” said Mohammed, a driver hauling stacks of sandbags and light fixtures to the Dutch base in Tirin Kot. The Afghan government even picks up a good chunk of Mr. Matiullah’s expenses. Under an arrangement with the Ministry of the Interior, the government pays for roughly 600 of Mr. Matiullah’s 1,500 fighters, including Mr. Matiullah himself, despite the fact that the force is not under the government’s control.

But Mr. Matiullah’s role has grown beyond just business. His militia has been adopted by American Special Forces officers to gather intelligence and fight insurgents. Mr. Matiullah’s compound sits about 100 yards from the American Special Forces compound in Tirin Kot. A Special Forces officer, willing to speak about Mr. Matiullah only on the condition of anonymity, said his unit had an extensive relationship with Mr. Matiullah. “Matiullah is the best there is here,” the officer said.

I’m sorry for the extended quote, but it was necessary to set the stage for the follow-on observations.  First, if it is suicide to travel the roads without Matiullah’s men, that is a sad commentary on the relative strength of the insurgency, even now.  Second, setting aside the issue of having to work with the more unseemly elements of society in counterinsurgency operations, there is something huge that is being lost in this whole affair.  It is contact between U.S. troops and the population.

A Marine Regimental Combat Team could not only do a better job of securing the countryside and roadways, it could also interact with the population in the process, possibly setting into motion something that could last beyond their own presence.  As it is, money is the driving force for this warlord, and without it it remains to be seen whether he and his army can survive.

As for the money, there may be too much of it being thrown around.  Counterinsurgency needs more discretion and less recklessness than we see in the report.  Furthermore, I am willing to bet that a RCT can provide safe passage for logistics for much less than Matiullah and his men.

Finally, note how panicked we seem.  We’re throwing money around without regards to quantity or recipient, like scared protectorate of the mafia looking for an escape hatch.  It doesn’t bode well for the campaign.


  1. On June 8, 2010 at 8:20 am, BruceR said:

    The thing is, Herschel, that was tried. 5 (Stryker) BCT was specifically employed to this area in 2009 in part to relieve/augment Matiullah’s KAU militia for route security responsibilities for North Kandahar province. Obviously, it didn’t take, and 5 BCT has moved on to other jobs. Now was that because the BCT was needed more for those other things, like securing the road into Helmand that all the Marines’ and Brits’ supplies are coming in on? Probably.

    I mean, not a lot of people live on the Tarin Kot road, not by Afghan standards. If ISAF’s needs can be met by keeping the road through the mountains open one day a week, as the article states, deployment of Western forces to secure the unpopulated area it’s in 24/7 would not seem economical when set against the other pressures on the force structure. But you’re not going to get a lot of American-Afghan interaction on that stretch of road by doing convoy security.

    That said, yeah, the KAU (Matiullah’s militia) is a potential menace, has been for years. But Matiullah (another Popalzai, same qawm as the Karzais) will likely be a powerful figure at least as long as the Karzais are in power. He’s really just another manifestation of A.W. Karzai’s godfather-like power in the south right now. If you ever get the feeling we ever made a move on him, as you’ve advocated previously, pretty much every convoy in Afghanistan would stop dead the next day, you’re probably right. And note the one guy who ever challenged Matiullah, the Interior Minister, who was not from Karzai’s inner circle, was fired on the weekend.

    Interesting, that firing, by the way… I note there were no actual casualties at the peace jirga that the Interior Minister and NDS head were both fired for failing to protect… after all the multi-casualty incidents in Afghanistan where no one has been fired… just some rockets landing a safe distance away. And President Karzai, who was speaking at the time, did seem strangely unrattled. Hey, but he’s a cool customer. Maybe he kept it in, but really did mind being interrupted enough to then summarily fire the only two government officials left that the U.S. still more-or-less trusted a couple days later. Could happen.

  2. On June 8, 2010 at 8:44 am, Herschel Smith said:

    I can’t see deployment of a Stryker Brigade as being very effective. The troops need to be dismounted. A Marine RCT supporting an infantry Battalion would be better.

    Give a Marine RCT responsibility for this area, and I assure you, convoy trucks would not stop. Or, another approach that I would actually support. More military contractors, but stipulations against hiring Matiullah and his ilk. We are making criminals, and nothing good will come of it. It feels good right now, I am sure like taking a drug. The logistics move. But in the end, the drug ruins the body.

  3. On June 8, 2010 at 9:00 am, BruceR said:

    Yeah, but there’s only so many Nepalese to go around. Sooner or later if you go the PMC route for this, you end up hiring Afghans. And as with Hazara tasked to police in Pashtun areas, sooner or later any Afghan you bring in from outside the local power structure ends up dead or deserting (or in some cases, co-opted), and the locals, who are “the only ones who can truly provide security,” get hired in their place. And that’s basically how we got where we are now in this case.

    You’re not going to get far in today’s Afghanistan with any plan that assumes the current president’s brother and his subordinates (and Matiullah’s far from the worst of those) can be easily excluded from the “security” business in the south. That is their key and overriding interest, and they will throw anyone and anything else under the bus in pursuit of it. Really, the Karzais are already looking past the current fight, and building the power base with which they think they’re going to control Afghanistan (or at least the south) after we draw down, with our money while it lasts. We might want to start doing the same thing.

    (Prediction: in the future, it will be “General” Matiullah, and we’ll start seeing the KAU and other “security companies” under Karzai control in more and better uniforms with more and better weapons. As the article relates, they’re already using ANP trucks… doubtlessly “given” to them by the Western-trained, long-vanished police.)

  4. On June 8, 2010 at 10:45 am, Warbucks said:

    Warlords will each face their moment of choice, to either serve their emerging country (if it is to emerge) or to perpetuate their selves. I would not want to have to live in their shoes as I can imagine there are moments in each warlord life, where he sees a choice might be possible but for the outstanding obligations he has created. It takes a rather exceptional ability to break away from the rings of obligations. It may be best to just place them on “the list” and retire them quietly.

  5. On June 8, 2010 at 10:51 am, Herschel Smith said:

    I understand your points, Bruce. You’re right about the Karzai brothers and their criminal activities and preperations for when we leave. But my problem is that you sound like the British who protected and defended Sadr in 2004 and convinced the powers to release him. “We have to work with these people as they are,” said they. He should have been shot, and many lives would have been saved.

    Your basic position sounds like we are helpless in the face of the corruption and problems posed by Afghanistan. This, I deny, any more than we were helpless in Iraq. The problems in Iraq were extreme, and many more perished in Iraq than have in Afghanistan, and in a much shorter time. However, without a larger footprint (not necessarily more money) and much more time, it is a losing proposition. In this, you are right (although we disagree on the size of the footprint needed). If the goal is simply to leave as quickly as possible, I say do it right now. Playing the game “who can hire the badest criminals” while good U.S., Canadian and British boys die is foolish and morally wrong.

    Bring them all home and do this again in five years after globalists have set up sanctuary and executed their next series of attacks on the West and the public supports the campaign.

  6. On June 8, 2010 at 11:28 am, BruceR said:

    Herschel, I’m not trying to be defeatist, really. It’s just that history indicates assassinating your chosen proxies because they’ve become insufficiently puppet-like has a mixed record of success, too. I simply don’t see a plausible way out that way. Sadr was a legitimate target, at least those times when he was in open insurrection, which makes that situation a little different.

    I mostly agree with your last paragraph. I’m just suggesting that there’s another possible template for that next time, and pop-centric COIN isn’t it. Our strengths as Western militaries are FID, SOF, fast-in fast-out maneuver forces (including the Marines) and air power. Any strategy that actively restricts those advantages is simply going to be much less likely to succeed, anywhere it’s tried.

  7. On June 10, 2010 at 6:59 am, TSAlfabet said:

    Very interesting discussion.

    Captain, your comments about doing this again in 5 years after the globalists have set up their sanctuary again, coupled with Bruce’s point about the strengths of the U.S. military, make me think of sand castles on a beach approach. In other words, allow the bad guys to spend the time and money building (or re-building, I suppose) their little sand-castles while we closely monitor their activities. At the appropriate time (hopefully not after they have successfully launched an attack), the U.S. “wave” is released against their “sand castle” to obliterate it without mercy and then the wave recedes back to the ocean.

    I have long argued that the American psyche is geared towards quick, overwhelming and aggressive victory. COIN would be more of an option if our hands were not so tied with politically correct ROE’s, but we simply seem to care too much what the Euro-weenies think to adopt a more realistic approach.

    Question: as I recall, alot of the liberal criticisms of the Anbar campaign focused on this notion that U.S. Marines were hiring local, Sunni “thugs” to help quell the Al Qaeda insurgency and that this was directly undermining the central, Iraqi government. Of course we know that those criticisms were wrong, but how is the situation different in A-stan? Are there no “sons of Kandahar” or Helmand that can be put on the commander’s payroll and under the U.S. authority?

  8. On June 12, 2010 at 8:14 pm, jaredclarksmith said:

    We created this guy. We nutured an environment where his presence has flourished as we have demanded. We want security, or at least a kevlar fig leaf of security, but we refuse to put the men and material in place to make it happen. So we do it the old fashioned way; we pay for it, and we get what we pay for. There are men (and some women too) all over Afghanistan and in Tajik and Uzbeck and Kurgy and Packy, that are doing the same thing exactly. And we are lucky to have them.
    They will return to their dust and rice as soon as we and our cash are gone. It has been said that you may not purchase an Afghan man, you may only rent him. Purhaps we should commision this Aghan road guard king and draw him into the ANA. There he would rein ligitament in all eyes, and still ply his professional trade.

  9. On June 14, 2010 at 8:47 pm, Warbucks said:

    News Update heard on Radio June 14, 2010: $1.5-trillion+- in Afghan mining extraction wealth. In an agreement with Afghan Government today the US announced that world wide invitations are being solicited from mining and exploration companies to bid on mining concession rights for Afghanistan.

    One of the conditions include bidders must agree to “western bookkeeping transparency.” Good luck with that condition.

    On the upside if anyone picks up more on the impact of these mining efforts and their influence on the war one way or the other, please link it in.

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You are currently reading "Warlord Builds Afghan Empire with U.S. Dollars", entry #5083 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency and was published June 7th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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